Sustainability, to most people, is a synonym for environmentalism. But, sustainability is actually a very complex issue that integrates the environment, the economy, social justice, and perhaps even more.
Probably the most well-known definition of sustainability amongst those who study and work in this still emerging field is that produced by the Brundtland Commission, a UN body, in the 1980s. It reported: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
This sounds simple, right? But when you get into the details of how to achieve sustainability, things become much more complex.
In the world of business, taking factors "external" to your company into account (i.e. the natural environment and society), and especially taking these factors into account while looking a long ways into the future, has generally been ignored more than not. Why? Because these are complicated matters. Because not many business experts know a lot about such topics. Because it has taken a long time for those in this field to realize that these matters are very important to the long-term success of a company.
However, these factors are often crucial to the success of your business, especially the long-term success of your business, as well as the state of the world, which your business is supposedly trying to improve. Due to pure necessity as well as the strong will and intelligence of leaders in the field, they are making their way into business education and business practice more and more, but there is still a long ways to go.
The Sustainable Business
In much more depth, precision, and skill than I (or most in this field) could ever write or talk about the matter, successful businessman and professor Jonathan T. Scott, one such sustainability leader, discusses this topic in his new primer The Sustainable Business.
The Sustainable Business (a free ebook) is a shorter version of Scott's Managing the New Frontiers. It is being distributed by the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) and has thus far been distributed to over 1.3 million people (many more expected soon after translation of the book into Mandarin Chinese is completed).
I took the opportunity to read through this book recently and thought I'd share my 2 or 3 cents on it here on Earth & Industry.
You Won't Often Find a Handshake and a Hug When Proposing a Greater Focus on Sustainability
Scott, with a great deal of experience trying to push the envelope, helpfully discusses the obstacles one will face (and how to overcome them) when trying to integrate sustainability and business more. Scott relates a couple of his more colorful personal experiences in the world of academia here:
In 2004, when I first suggested adding [sustainability] to the curriculum of a business programme, the president of the university made a throwing gesture with his left hand and invited me to exit his office by loudly growling, ‘GET OUT OF HERE!’ Five years later he presented me with an award for outstanding achievements in teaching. To his credit, he refused to ignore the over $2 million my (first year) students showed local businesses they can save by adopting waste-minimisation practices. The progress I made with other university administrators occurred in a more opportunistic way. For example, one programme coordinator resisted every attempt made to introduce sustainability as an elective course – until she took a two-year maternity leave. Three minutes was all that was needed to convince her replacement that sustainability is not only viable as a business subject, it is vital – something the school’s students seemed to know intuitively. The first semester it was offered, Managing the New Frontiers, a basic course on waste minimisation as a first step toward sustainability, became the most popular elective in the school’s history (a record it still holds).
Scott does an excellent job deconstructing why there is so much resistance to integrating sustainability ("e.g. apathy, ignorance, short-term thinking, and what Machiavelli called 'the incredulity of mankind, who do not believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.'") in the introduction and when discussing the first "P" of his 7-P model -- preparation. In this section he also lays out very comprehensively all the the main arguments for sustainability is a critical issue for corporations nowadays.
From there on, he delves into the other key topics of Preservation, Processes, People, Place, Product, and Production in both a practical and enlightening way (as the multi-talented businessman and professor he is). Throughout the book, he uses real-world examples of the benefits leading companies (i.e. Wal-mart, Proctor & Gamble, Dell, Xerox, etc.) have experienced from integrating sustainability more and more into their objectives and practices.
He also delves into the "perils of green-washing" and why it doesn't work to just superficially "go green."
I highly recommend taking a look at The Sustainable Business, especially if you or your business are just delving into sustainability. But even if you are a veteran in this field, there is much to be gained from this sustainability guide. If you are wrestling over a specific philosophical topic or practical decision related to sustainability, I think there is a good chance you can find something in here to help you.
Sustainable Business Performance Website
In addition to this book and the longer version mentioned above, Walter Stahel (a leader in the field who also reviewed and edited this book) and Jonathan Scott have teamed up with website creator Piotr Jedrzejuk to put together a unique online library and data distribution center dedicated to freely collecting and sharing knowledge about sustainability in a business context, Sustainable Business Performance. This looks like a nascent but good resource and community for those interested in sustainable business practices.